A bronze statue near Anchorage’s Ship Creek represents Olga, an elder and matriarch for the Dena’ina people north of Anchorage. (Photo courtesy of Joel Isaak)

A bronze statue near Anchorage’s Ship Creek represents Olga, an elder and matriarch for the Dena’ina people north of Anchorage. (Photo courtesy of Joel Isaak)

Soldotna artist honors Dena’ina heritage with Anchorage statue

Near Anchorage’s Ship Creek, a new bronze statue of an elder named Olga, a Dena’ina matriarch from the village of Eklutna, stands and overlooks land that was once a prosperous Native fish camp.

Soldotna artist Joel Isaak, who is Dena’ina himself, worked on the statue for two and a half years. He said he doesn’t take the opportunity to represent his culture through art lightly.

“It’s a lot of reflection,” Isaak said. “Trying to consolidate the history of cultural annihilation and assimilation in a positive light is tricky. It’s a way to convey that we are still living people.”

Isaak, a Dena’ina language professor at the Kenai Peninsula College, created his proposal for the statue after the village of Eklutna sent out a call for art. The parameters of the project included a piece that was in the likeness of Olga and that it tiedinto the fishing heritage at the site of Ship Creek.

Isaak said it’s always a rare opportunity to himself as an Alaska Native in public art.

“Most of the figurative work, if it is of indigenous people, looks like European people,” Isaak said. “I don’t identify with it from a visual standpoint. Being able to have the opportunity to be able to be a little more in control of the narrative is an honor. It’s exciting to see other people’s excitement at that opportunity.”

Isaak’s work can be found in many places across Alaska. He worked on a beluga whale diorama in Anchorage’s Ted Stevens Airport. Art of Isaak’s can be found in the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka. Locally, Isaak completed statues in front of the Dena’ina Wellness Center and salmon skin bowls in the Kenai Courthouse.

Isaak had two photographs of Olga to base his statue on. The statue has Olga in customary Dena’ina clothing, like fish skin boots and a dress featuring quill work. Isaak said Dena’ina regalia has been important to him to him from an early age.

“Part of my journey in making the bronze statuary is learning how to make the clothing,” Isaak said. “I’ve wanted to learn to make regalia since I was in either first or second grade making paper pilgrim and Indian costume stuff. I researched at museums, and took workshops and learned all the methods needed to produce that clothing so I understood what I was trying to replicate before just looking at a picture in a book and trying to make it look something like that.”

The Dena’ina culture is a matriarchal society. Olga was an elder and a leader in Dena’ina land north of Anchorage. Isaak said the piece was not only honoring Dena’ina history and heritage, but also women in our society.

“Honoring our indigenous women and women everywhere — our society is based off of that model so there’s strong precedent for making an elder and then having the elder be a woman,” Isaak said. “I think it’s poignant in our current situation for the need to honor and respect women in our state and in the world, but especially with the current statistics. Bringing a visual voice to honor the role that women have in our society and culture.”

Born and raised in Soldotna, Isaak has many connections to Dena’ina culture, and even Olga herself. His family comes from the Upper Cook Inlet area in Point Possession. He said he’s distantly related to Olga, going back several generations.

“I’ve always had a strong desire to be connected to my indigenous Native culture and all the different cultures that my family comes from,” Isaak said. “But living here in Soldotna on Dena’ina land there has been a very strong desire from me from a very early age to learn my language and material culture.”

In Dena’ina culture, clothing is used as fine art. Dena’ina people were semi-nomadic or sedentary and would move between summer fish camp and a winter village, which was sometimes in almost the same spot, Isaak said. For this reason, art would move with the people in the form of clothing, which would represent things like where a person was from and what family they belonged to.

“You put (your art) on your clothing and you bring it with you,” Isaak said. “So the quill work design in the shape of the tunic can tell where you’re from — it can tell your clan information. It’s a form of visual written communication that we don’t really have that Rosetta Stone for. It served as a function for that and it also brings in that visual fine art. We just brought it with us everywhere instead of leaving it behind glass or in a frame.”

The statue is near Anchorage’s downtown, which a busy and growing part of the city. Isaak said the statue is a reminder of the area’s past.

“Having it be in Anchorage is making invisible people visible,” Isaak said. “It’s surrounded by this growing city, but we’re still here and making that visual presence.”

Joel Isaak is a Soldotna-based artist who teaches Dena’ina language classes at the Kenai Peninsula College, on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

Joel Isaak is a Soldotna-based artist who teaches Dena’ina language classes at the Kenai Peninsula College, on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)

More in News

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Members of the Alaska House of Representatives on Saturday rejected the budget bill passed by the Senate earlier in the week. The bill will now go to a bicameral committee for negotiations, but the end of the legislative session is Wednesday.
House votes down Senate’s budget as end of session nears

State budget now goes to negotiating committee

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Candidate for Alaska’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives Tara Sweeney, a Republican, was in Juneau on Monday and sat down with the Empire for an interview. Sweeney said the three main pillars of her campaign are the economy, jobs and healthy communities.
Sweeney cites experience in run for Congress

GOP candidate touts her history of government-related work

One tree stands in front of the Kenai Post Office on Thursday, May 12, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai taking down hazard beetle trees

The city hopes to leverage grant funds for most of the work

Former Alaska governor and current congressional hopeful Sarah Palin speaks with attendees at a meet-and-greet event outside of Ginger’s Restaurant on Saturday, May 14, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Palin brings congressional bid to Soldotna

The former governor took time Saturday to sign autographs and take pictures with attendees

In this October 2019 photo, Zac Watt, beertender for Forbidden Peak Brewery, pours a beer during the grand opening for the Auke Bay business in October 2019. On Sunday, the Alaska House of Representatives OK’d a major update to the state’s alcohol laws. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Graphic by Ashlyn O'Hara
Borough, school district finalizing $65M bond package

Efforts to fund maintenance and repairs at school district facilities have been years in the making

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Members of the House Majority Coalition spent most of Friday, May 13, 2022, in caucus meetings at the Alaska State Capitol, discussing how to proceed with a large budget bill some have called irresponsible. With a thin majority in the House of Representatives, there’s a possibility the budget could pass.
State budget work stretches into weekend

Sessions have been delayed and canceled since Wednesday

Peter Segall / Juneau Empire
Alaskans for Better Government members La quen náay Liz Medicine Crow, Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson and ‘Wáahlaal Gidáak Barbara Blake embrace on the floor of the Alaska State Senate following the passage of House Bill 123, a bill to formally recognize the state’s 229 federally recognized tribes.
Tribal recognition bill clears Senate, nears finish line

Senators say recognition of tribes was overdue

The Alaska Division of Forestry’s White Mountain crew responds to a fire burning near Milepost 46.5 of the Sterling Highway on Tuesday, May 10, 2022, near Cooper Landing, Alaska. (Photo courtesy Cooper Landing Emergency Services)
Officials encourage residents to firewise homes

The central peninsula has already had its first reported fires of the season

Most Read